Jane Matilda Bolin was born on April 11, 1908 in Poughkeepsie, New York. She was the youngest of four children born to Gaius C. Bolin, a lawyer and first black graduate of Williams College, and Matilda Ingram Bolin, a white Englishwoman. Her mother became ill when Bolin was young and died when she was eight years old. As a single parent, her father devoted a great deal of time and energy to his children while simultaneously running his own small law practice in Poughkeepsie.
In 1924, after high school in Poughkeepsie, Bolin began attending Wellesley College. She was one of two black women to enter that year. She later recalled her life at Wellesley as a lonely time where she was ignored socially and received little encouragement from the faculty. As a senior, when she told her adviser about her plans to become a lawyer, she was sternly instructed to think of something else. There was no future for a black woman as a lawyer, she was told. Upon graduating in 1928, Bolin was named a "Wellesley Scholar" a distinction given to the top 20 women in their class.
Bolin's father knew his daughter could become a lawyer--he just did not want her to. He was very opposed to the idea and assumed - or perhaps hoped - that she would become a schoolteacher. He didn't think that women should hear the unpleasant things that lawyers have to hear. Bolin so feared her father's disapproval that she did not tell him her plans until she had already interviewed and was accepted by Yale Law School. With her father's reluctant blessing, Bolin went through the school and graduated in 1931, becoming the first black woman to receive a degree from Yale.
With law degree in hand, Bolin affixed her name to the front door of her father's Poughkeepsie practice until 1933 when her marriage to fellow lawyer, Ralph E. Mizelle took her to New York. The couple practiced law together until 1937 when Bolin applied for a position in the Office of the Corporation Counsel of the City of New York, the city's law office. Although initially dismissed during her interview for the position by an assistant, Corporation Counsel Paul Windell walked in the office and hired her on the spot, giving Bolin the distinction as the first black woman to become an Assistant Corporation Counsel. In this role Bolin was assigned to the Domestic Relations Court where she represented petitioners who could not afford their own lawyer.
Bolin had held the position of Assistant Corporation Counsel for two years when she was summoned by the office of New York's mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, to meet the mayor at the New York City building of the World's Fair which had just opened. Concerned that someone had complained about her performance in the Corporation Counsel's office and the mayor was going to reprimand her, Bolin persuaded her husband to accompany her to the meeting. Her concern was short lived when she learned Mayor LaGuardia's intent was swear her in as a judge. In 1939 she became the first black woman judge in the United States. The swearing in took place on a Saturday and Bolin took her place on the bench the following Monday. It would be a position she would hold for the next 40 years.
Bolin was assigned to the Domestic Relations Court, which in 1962 became known as the Family Court of the State of New York. This position gave Bolin a front row seat to virtually every aspect of legal trouble that could engage a New York family. From battered spouses and neglected children to paternity suits and, increasingly over her 40-year career, homicides committed by juveniles.
While a justice, Bolin also sought to bring about changes to the way things were handled in the New York legal bureaucracy. One change was the assignment of probation officers to cases without to race or religion. When she was sworn in there were only one or two black probation officers and they handled only black families. She had that changed. A second change was ensuring private child care agencies that received public funding would accept children regardless of ethnic background. They used to put a big 'N' or 'PR' on the front of every petition, to indicate if the family was black or Puerto Rican, Bolin had that changed as well.
In 1978, Bolin reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 and was forced to step down from the bench, although she was very much opposed to the idea. She then became a member of the Regents Review Committee of for the New York State Board of Regents where she reviewed disciplinary cases.
In addition to her work on the bench Bolin served on the board of many agencies and organizations including the Child Welfare League, the National Board of the NAACP, the New York Urban League, the Dalton School, and Wiltwyck School for Boys, which she helped found with Eleanor Roosevelt and others. All activities that paralleled a lifetime of professional work designed to help people.
Bolin was a pioneer for the black community and she paved a road of hope and heroism for black women. She had a mission and a vision and she stuck to it. In her eyes, she wasn't chasing after fame or "the first black woman to..." bragging rights; she was simply following her life's path, pursuing goals in a profession she cared for deeply, not unlike any other man or woman, black or white.
"We shall never cease from exploration, and at the end of all our exploring, will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time."